From my work with entrepreneurial rural communities across the country, I'm convinced that youth are essential to real and lasting economic revitalization. Young people add much more than just numbers to a community:
- Many young people are entrepreneurial by nature with lots of energy. They start new businesses, and with the support of their community can transition existing businesses to the next generation.
- Young adults who move to your community are often well-educated, technology-oriented, and possess a variety of experiences, fresh ideas, and contacts that can be leveraged in a variety of ways to advance community and economic development.
- Young families purchase many goods and services that benefit local businesses, and they support local schools, libraries, and health care services.
- They build new or renovate properties to provide homes for their families, positively impacting the appearance of your community, property values and local tax revenues.
Here are just three examples of how investing in youth engagement can positively impact rural economic development:
- Youth can be the spark of entrepreneurial energy that communities need to get on their feet and forge ahead, renewing optimism among adults as well. An example is an entrepreneurship program that encourages youth and young adults to start new businesses with the support of their community. In David City, Nebraska, an investment by the local community foundation in an entrepreneurship education curriculum several years ago resulted in a robust program for middle school to high school age students to develop their business ideas with the encouragement of the community. At the conclusion of a recent middle school entrepreneurship camp, I asked the participants how their experiences had impacted their views about staying or returning to their hometown in the future. Without hesitation, a 5th grade student responded, "You know, before this camp I didn't see many job opportunities here, but now I see a whole bunch of business opportunities!"
- Many young people have technology savvy, which can be a tremendous resource for helping existing businesses compete more effectively in our increasing networked economy. Or, they may start new businesses that use technology as a backbone for bringing new wealth and jobs to their community.
- For each alum a community attracts home, the actual impact on population is an increase of not one, but potentially three or more, as these young adults get married and have, on average, two children, as reflected in U.S. Census data. I have met many young couples in my travels where one spouse was from the local rural area and married a total newcomer. They moved back to begin their family where they felt safe with good schools for their children.
Yet despite these tangible benefits, sometimes it is difficult to get decision makers to invest in youth engagement as an economic development priority. Their response is often, "We need to create jobs now!" I understand this perspective in the current economic climate, but I would argue that youth engagement is a strategy that can complement traditional economic development activities in addressing the real and systemic challenges many rural communities have faced for many years: out-migration, depopulation, and economic decline.
Youth engagement is a long-term strategy, but it can also result in short-term outcomes that build momentum in your hometown. One important tool we use to help local leaders understand the potential youth hold for their community is an assessment of youth perspectives about their hometowns, future education and career goals, and their desire to stay or return to their hometown. An outcome that often surprises adults is just how many youth would like to live in their hometown if there were good career opportunities available. Recent Center surveys including over 25,000 middle-to-high-school-age youth found that 50% are open to staying or returning home in the future.
The good news is that our research also indicates that if just 5% to 15% more young people return home on a sustained basis, they can stabilize population loss due to outmigration, and help to revitalize their hometowns with their energy and entrepreneurial drive. This is due in large part to the 3:1 exponential impact young families have on population and their contributions to economic revitalization, noted previously.
The youth survey can also help in assessing your community's youth engagement opportunities. Once you have evidence that young people are interested in staying or returning home, and what is motivating this interest, you can then work with youth to pursue strategies that will have traction and make sense for your community.
There are many ways to engage young people in your hometown. Some examples include considering their opinions and needs on local issues, investing in youth-led community projects and adding youth representation to local leadership. By partnering with local schools, communities can expand youth engagement with investment in youth entrepreneurship education and preparation for specific career and business opportunities locally.
How do you work with youth in your community? What are the challenges and opportunities that you see? What questions do you have about this approach to rural economic development?
To learn more about how the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship can assist you in working with young people and attracting them home, please contact Craig Schroeder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit the RUPRI Rural Futures Lab here.